Accountability must focus more on improving and less on approving

The thinking that brought about our current accountability system can’t get us out of the problems it has caused, writes Les Walton

The thinking that brought about our current accountability system can’t get us out of the problems it has caused, writes Les Walton

16 May 2023, 5:00

The present debate about the future of our external inspection service is a defining one for our school system. The danger is that it diverts us from focusing on how we enable schools to develop talent and capacity so that they have the means to sustain their own improvement. Procedural changes and ditching the ‘one-word’ grade summary of school performance are not enough.

What we need is an entirely new paradigm of school improvement and accountability. The traditional orthodoxy surrounding school improvement and inspection is simply no longer fit for purpose. We need to strike a better balance between enabling and empowering school leaders and accountability and compliance.

In England, the thinking around the turn of the century regarding how schools were supported was reasonably consistent across most political persuasions. Central government would be the main player, not local government. It would set the standards and the approach, and these would change with every new government.

The emphasis was on a rapid quick-fix approach to school and college improvement. By design, intervention was provided in ‘inverse proportion to success’ with the ‘most successful’ receiving no support at all. ‘Naming and shaming’ was a declared policy, the assumption being that some school leaders would only change in response to fear and coercive tactics. Behind these mantras was a free-market view that competition between schools and colleges would lead to improvement.

The result has been an increasing focus on structural change: change the governance, the leaders and even the name of the school and this will naturally lead to improvement. Judgments that are primarily based on previous test and examination results and external inspection reports are designed to identify schools in difficulty, and these are provided with an imposed road map to lead them out of their problems.

This entire paradigm has lost credibility

The forced academisation order on the basis of a single grade is the perfect example of the simplistic nature of this approach to school improvement. But it is only the latest manifestation of the same dogma: Those who are identified to provide support are selected not on the basis of their professional expertise but whether their institution itself has a good external inspection report (whether or not the report is the result of their own professional input).

The mantra that ‘good leaders make good advisers’ is rarely challenged, even though the skillset and knowledge required for both roles are very different.

This entire paradigm has lost credibility, and the growing clamour for rethinking Ofsted marks a fundamental shift in our thinking about how we support and enable our schools to develop and improve. The problems with leaving supposedly ‘outstanding’ schools to their own devices lay bare this system’s shortcomings.

The focus should be on self-sustained improvement for all schools with enabling and capacity building at the core of our accountability system. We need to support the skills and knowledge of every school leader to develop all aspects of school provision.

Whether Ofsted’s existence has helped to create the culture we have now or not, the fact is that today’s school leaders welcome and invite challenge. They would like to be recognised as professionals who want to learn and improve rather than treated as empty vessels that need to be filled with quick-fix solutions. They don’t need fear; They need improvement associates they can trust.

This is the core reason why key educational organisations have given their support for the establishment of the Association of Educational Advisers’ independent quality standard for those who support and advise schools and colleges.

There is growing recognition that those who support and advise schools should develop a transactional agreement with schools and colleges, in which they agree on what they both wish to achieve. Likewise, the notion of basing intervention on performance data or inspection findings is being dismissed in favour of a deep analysis of the causal factors of success and failure.

These are not signs of a profession shirking accountability but fully embracing it in the name of progress for their schools and our education system. And that seems to me like the sort of evidence of improvement policy makers should be embracing, not dismissing.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Agree with Les. I think Ofsted will undergo significant reform over the next couple of years. I’m hopeful of the noises made by Labour in relation to a school improvement function for the inspectorate. Just as the main purpose of observing a lesson is improvement, not measurement, so should it be when observing a school.

  2. This article is spot-on.

    Lonely leaders need support not more accountability.

    Thank you Les, it is very refreshing to hear someone who understands the critical role of headteacher and teacher well-being, in school improvement and organisation development.

  3. Andy Lancashire

    This is a well thought out opinion piece from Sir Les Walton which clearly identifies the mistakes of the past and the continual ‘weighing of the pig’ accountability regime which we have had for over thirty years. The AoEA’s independent quality standard offers a way by which schools and academies can access high quality support that will enable system leaders to sustain improvement; a system that in my opinion needs to include Local Authorities in England (as it already does in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) working in collaboration across local areas with far less central interference in structure that does not impact on outcomes or well-being.

  4. School Improvement, and in many cases, the lack of same is influenced by a wide variety of factors. Inspection must recognise this more fully – and indeed reflect this in any report.

    Stability in governance is crucial and the ability to motivate existing / appoint staff who share the vision of the leader are paramount factors. It necessarily follows that not all schools can be turned around or improved in the short term. Some need a longer term outlook with a series of sustained action plans – which, in themselves, can promote necessary changes.

    Les is always worth listening to intently – one of high greatest insights being the comment that….We need to support the skills and knowledge of every school leader to develop all aspects of school provision.

    This ‘support’ about much more than curriculum and curriculum delivery in that it’s getting the ‘team’ in a school working effectively and efficiently and creating the circumstances where this can flourish. Too often, the curriculum might not necessarily be the first priority – but must always be a paramount factor.

    Leadership is crucial at all levels – with the leader feeling advised and supported. This leadership needs to come from fellow (generally other Headteacher) professionals who recognise that school improvement is ultimately measured by the curricular successes of pupils – but rarely delivered by advice, in isolation, from professionals whose only experience is in curriculum delivery.

  5. Grace Bulloch

    If you agree with the points made in Les’ article, join the Association of Education Advisers Annual Summit 2023, being held at the Principal York Hotel, on Friday 9th June 2023. There are a variety of speakers and AoEA Associates discussing school advice, support, and challenge.
    Email to find out more.